Rembrandt: 400 years and still young!
By Karel Vereycken
Rembrandt H. van Ryn, was born on July 15, 1606, as the son of a not so poor miller living in the revolutionary city of Leyden in the Netherlands.
Today, four hundred years later, even without any knowledge of the specific historical context, few are those that remain indifferent to his artistic message and skill. Why Rembrandt? What particular quality of his paintings, engravings and drawings gives him the power to reach over centuries of time?
(...)As we will document here, Rembrandt, a precocious intellectual, became already quite "universal" as a young adult. But let's try to find out what "universal" means.
(...) In 1609, Rembrandt, not even three years old, enters basic school, where girls and boys learn to read, to write and to calculate. School opens at six a.m. in the summer, at seven a.m. in winter, and finishes only at seven p.m. Classes start with prayer, the reading and discussion of passages of the Bible and the singing of psalms. Here Rembrandt develops an elegant handwriting and more than rudiments of the Bible.
The Netherlands want to survive. Their leaders use the twelve year truce to fulfill their commitment to the general welfare. This way, early seventeenth century Holland became the first country of the world where everybody got the chance to learn how to read, write and calculate. That universal school system, whatever its inadequacies, offered to both poor and rich alike, will be the secret of the Dutch "Golden Century". It's high schooling will also create the generations of Dutch immigrants that will participate a hundred years afterwards in the American Revolution
Others would enter the secondary school at the age of twelve, but Rembrandt precociously enters Leyden's Latin School at the age of seven. There, pupils generally, besides rhetoric, logic and calligraphy, learn, not only Greek and Latin, but English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Then, in 1620, at the age of fourteen, since no rule in the Netherlands bridles young talents, Rembrandt inscribes at the University. His choice is not Theology, Law, Science, nor Medicine, but…Literature. Did Rembrandt want to add to his knowledge of Latin, the mastery of Greek and Hebrew philology and perhaps Chaldean, Coptic or Arabic? After all, Leyden was already publishing Arabic-Latin dictionaries, while the Netherlands were increasingly growing to become the book printing centre of the world.
(…) But the big trouble had already started way before. A disastrous theological "debate" degenerated into a conflict akin to civil war. On the one side, Jacob Arminius, founder of the "Remonstrant" current upholding the Erasmian-Rabelaisian concept of man endowed with a free will—although that free will remained to be fine-tuned with the will of God. This view was also held by the elder general and capable statesman, the raadspensionaris Johan Oldenbarneveld. On the opposing side, one Franciscus Gomarus, defender of the fatalist Calvinist doctrine of "predestination", a doctrine adhered to by Prince Maurits, the young incoming son of the founder of the nation, William the Silent. While leaders were strongly divided, the 1619 "Dordrecht Synod" installed the radical Calvinist doctrine as the law.
But Leyden was mostly "Arminian" and so was Rembrandt. Rembrandt's 1633 and 1635 portraits of Johannes Uytenbogaert, the main Reverend leading the Arminians who was obliged to spent several years of his life in exile to escape from persecution, show how closely Rembrandt was connected to this movement.
So, when Rembrandt enters university, the situation is very hot. Arminian-minded teachers are on the leave and often forced to do so. So was Rembrandt, and after two months, at age fourteen, he quits University and goes into painting.
(…) Rembrandt's interest in the power of ideas clearly appears in the "Pilgrims at Emmaus", where an atmosphere of astonishment and horror break out when Christ reveals himself to the disbelievers.
Then, before setting up his studio, Rembrandt will spend six months in the workshop of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. With Lastman, Rembrandt finally finds a master that departs from the traditional Dutch landscapes, still-lives and boring group portraits. Building on the theatrical settings of Caravaggio, Lastman paints biblical, Greek and Roman mythology. He paints history! And Rembrandt always desired to become a historieschilder. Now, Rembrandt finally found in painting the literature he was looking for when inscribing in the University. Also, in Lastman's workshop, he meets the talented Jan Lievens, with whom he will work for a while.
(…) Rembrandts reputation is largely the fruit of the near to one hundred multiform self-portraits, including about twenty engravings, covering the walls of numerous museums around the world. Some pragmatists tell us Rembrandt did that many self-portraits because he just was the cheapest model in town, and probably the most patient one. Others claim he was simply noting down his unending grimaces, the famous tronies, to prepare future dramatic historical paintings.
We think there is more to it and we approve Simon Schama who wrote that, "The reason for the multiplication of his self-image was not a relentless, almost monomaniacal assertion of the artistic ego but something like the exact opposite."
The self-portrait, an art expression that has nearly disappeared from today's practice, always throws an extremely daring challenge to the painter looking into the mirror. Is this me? I didn't realize I look that way. I've changed again! What is wrong? The a priori ideas in the mind of the perceiver or the sense perceptions he's confronted with? Real thinking, in essence, comes down to confronting not just those burning paradoxes, but the joy of overcoming them with self reflexive irony, and a truthful commitment to the permanent discovery and communication of that increasing irony through a Socratic dialogue.
Rembrandt, at the age of 22 starts training his first pupil, Gerrit Dou, only fifteen years old. Samuel van Hoogstraten, who was another young pupil, reported Rembrandt advising him: "Try to learn introducing in your work what you know already. Then, very soon, you will discover what escapes you and want to discover." His self-portrait at age 17 demonstrates what a contagious genius Rembrandt became rapidly as a teacher.
But Rembrandt's main problem was to show movement. Anima means soul and for Rembrandt animating the mind of the viewer was the art of making that viewer conscious of his own quality of moving the soul, i.e. moving the mover. Through this process of teaching and self-teaching Rembrandt works out various ways to tell his-stories. One funny way to put faces into motion is to wrap them into clothing, put on jewelry, and choose a specific light setting that generates interesting eye-attracting shadows bringing into light the plastic volumes. Explore facial expressions evoking anger, fear, happiness, self-doubt, laughter, etc. The real subject is not Rembrandt, but the discovery of human consciousness through self-consciousness. The mirror image permits oneself to look over one's shoulder down on oneself. Leonardo and others advised artists to view their own work in a mirror, since the "fresh" mirror image offered the artist another "viewpoint", revealing those remaining imperfections that had escaped from his attention.
Also, the compassion and self esteem one is forced to develop in that process becomes a basic ingredient for promethean and agapic character formation. Then, Rembrandt's joyful process of self-discovery spills naturally over into the portraits done of others. Look how funny Saskia smiles, when she dresses up "as Rembrandt" with a feathered reddish hat, carrying a golden chain and with her little hand lost in Rembrandt's large glove.
Then, there are also the self-portraits in assistenza, where the painter's face pops up uninvited in a larger painting, such as in Velazquez "Las Meninas".
(…) Historians might scream there is no space here for political manifestos. They are right. Rembrandt's ideas go far beyond simple minded militantism, and their political impact is much more profound. In 1641, an artist, Philips Angel, in front of the painting guild celebrated Rembrandt when speaking about Rembrandt's "elevated and profound reflection".
What where these "elevated and profound" ideas all about?
1) Truth. Somebody must mobilize the courage to stand up and tell the truth in front of established authorities or misleading public opinion. That theme comes regularly back, notably with "Suzanna and the Elders". Daniel, a witness of injustice will speak up and saves Suzanna from the death sentence.
2) Reason. Faith and religion do not always coincide with religious rites. Look to the angry angel preventing Abraham from killing his own son in "The sacrifice of Isaac". Think before acting! Reason, love of God and love for mankind must guide any religious practice and on the basis of reason, a dialogue of cultures can enrich humanity.
3) Self-perfection. Change, yes. People can find in themselves the means to identify their errors and change for the better. The example of Saint-Paul will stand as a permanent reference for Rembrandt, who painted him several times and even represented himself as the Church father.
4) Love, Repentance, Pardon. In a period of permanent danger of "religious wars", Rembrandt strongly identifies with Saint Stephen's demand "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Rembrandt will paint several times "The return of the prodigal son". The father gives a great feast for the returning son because he "who was dead…came back to life". The notion of pardon, and acting in the advantage of the other, will become the key concept for the success of the world Peace of Westphalia concluded in 1648 ending the thirty years war, including the recognition of the Netherlands as a sovereign state.
(…) We took here just a few examples to demonstrate that Rembrandts universal character derives directly from his ruthless commitment, directed to make us conscious of the creative potential given to all human beings, men and women, old and young, Christians, Jews, Muslims or others, a creative and creating human nature called the soul.
(…) Those who took time studying his paintings can tell themselves: "God exists, I just met Rembrandt", since through Rembrandt's art God's tender love and blessing power are revealed to us in our human reality.
That "immortal" nature of Rembrandt's soul will doubtlessly nourish the "immortality" of the creative geniuses he will inspire. Let us not wait another four hundred years to celebrate such a genius, for what he brings us is living and not to be buried in the history of art.
About the Author
Karel Vereycken, today a political activist and writer, was trained as a painter and extensively researched old techniques. He lives, writes and works in France and identifies as an Erasmian humanist.
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